Ramallah. As the police car escorting our group of Israeli women journalists pulls past the security barrier of the fancy five story building of the Council of Ministers Building in Ramallah, I had no idea that we were about to be privy to the secret weapon of the Palestine Authority.
We're led into an elegant conference room whose only decoration is an oversize portrait of Yasser Arafat. The floor tiles of the conference room are shined to perfection. The oblong oak conference table is set with glasses and bottled mineral water. We ease ourselves into comfortable plush black leather chairs around the table and settle in to listen to Hind Khoury, the Palestinian Minister for Jerusalem Affairs.
One of the Israelis leans forward to adjust her microphone on the table in front of Khoury and the wheels of her chair slide out over the super-polished tiles and the hapless woman ends up sprawled on the floor. Khoury barely breaks the stride of her speech and continues on with her litany of complaints about Israel's conduct vis-a-vis Jerusalem voters in the forthcoming Palestinian elections, while others around the table help the journalist pick herself up. Not five minutes later, one of the Arab reporters on the opposite side reaches for something; her chair does the same sliding maneuver and she too ends up sprawled on the floor. Equal opportunity faulty chairs?
Again, Khoury doesn't bat an eyelid as the rest of us try to suppress our guffaws. All I can think of as Arafat stares down at us is that this must have happened before since we are obviously not the first people to sit around this conference table. So this is how the wily old terrorist controlled his ministers?
For an Israeli, traveling to Ramallah these days involves a series of bureaucratic procedures. It's illegal for Israeli citizens to cross into Palestine Authority territory, since there's no one to protect you. Journalists with an Israeli government press card must apply to the Israeli Army spokesman?s office and sign a form acknowledging that you accept the risks inherent in entering a closed area.
At the checkpoint into Ramallah, an Israeli soldier cursorily asks if everyone in the van is a journalist and waves us through to the other side. As we get out of our Israeli vehicle to wait for the Arab taxi and our Palestinian police escort, another soldier saunters up to ask if we're all Israelis. "Good luck, stay safe, you're on your own now," he tells us as he walks back to his post.
Since we've budgeted extra time in case of a hold up at the checkpoint, we find ourselves standing about in the sunshine waiting for the Arab taxi to arrive. Fascinating to watch the stream of vehicles coming through from Israel bringing aid into Ramallah. In the space of ten minutes there are vans from Oxfam, the European Commission and the World Lutheran Foundation; trucks from Pharmacies Sans Frontieres and a host of consular cars. Once we're inside Ramallah, I begin to wonder why. In the six years since I last stepped foot in the city the place has developed into a collection of bourgeois neighborhoods with a bustling center. Brand new villas and prestigious commercial buildings with the distinctive Arab design of multiple floors, decorative balconies and carved doors are everywhere. And they're not packed in together, Israeli-style, either. Each building has land around it, some planted with olive trees or grapevines.
Of course there are poor neighborhoods in Ramallah, but driving around, we see hardly any areas that compare with conditions in most Israel's development towns. Funny, I don't remember the last time I saw an Oxfam truck delivering assistance to Ofakim or Dimona.
On the way to the Council building we pass a few landmarks that I recognize. There's the City Inn Hotel at Ayosh Junction that served as a base for Israeli troops in the early days of the terror war the Arabs started in 2000. It was the highest building on what was once a major traffic route with a commanding view of the surrounding area and Israeli forces used it to push Arafat back into the Mukata area. Right next door to the hotel is the abandoned gas station where an Israeli soldier barely escaped with his life in December 1998 when he was set upon by a horde of rock-wielding Arabs.
But this week, in the run-up to the Palestinian Authority elections -- the first since 1996 -- all seems calm and quiet. Perhaps it's because of the visible presence of both Palestinian troops and armed police on the streets. Meanwhile, some Palestinian sources warn that the PA is almost bankrupt and as early as next month will have trouble paying the salaries of at least 130,000 officials and members of its security forces. Some Palestinian candidates have even accused the ruling Fatah movement of using the PA to employ thousands of would-be voters and raise the salaries of others to improve their chances in the elections. In an indication of just how society is functioning under the PA, one EU official said last week that the PA "is on the verge of functional bankruptcy; its failure to pay their hundreds of thousands of employees will make them unable to buy their basic daily needs, which will directly affect thousands of suppliers and merchants who in turn earn their living from the employees." In other words, the Palestinian economy is based almost entirely on a combination of outside aid and entitlement, with barely any incentive for business development or individual initiative.
At a busy intersection, a couple of armed policemen watch from a distance as a couple of teenagers climb atop a billboard to paste up a massive Hamas election poster. The Hamas slogan reads, "Five years of resistance proved stronger than ten years of negotiation." Smaller posters in the trademark Hamas green feature the face of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader eliminated by Israel in 2004.
Not to be outdone, the main Fatah party image is of Arafat holding a poster of a handcuffed Marwan Barghouti, the convicted terrorist serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli jail for the murder of Israeli citizens. We see other banners that proclaim, "Jerusalem Is In Our Hearts."
Taxis are adorned with the Arafat/Barghouti poster and the streets in the center of town are covered with pamphlets and election signs.
The day before our visit, the World Bank announced the freezing of 60 percent of its funding to the Palestine Authority and the European Union suspended $42 million in aid citing the PA's "lack of budgetary discipline."
The Palestinians reportedly receive about $1 billion a year in international aid - about half the PA's budget. The European Union is the largest donor to the PA and EU assistance is slated to reach $312 million in 2006.
Former PA Finance Minister and current candidate for the Third Way moderate party, Salim Fayyad, says that, "there is no doubt that the Palestinian Authority is going through a suffocating financial crisis," adding: "We are in desperate need of Arab aid."
A few weeks ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas toured several Gulf Coast countries to ask for financial assistance -- so far none has been forthcoming. While Dubai and other Arab Gulf states wallow in luxury and boomtown development with barely a bone to throw at their Palestinian Arab co-religionists, the rest of the world is expected to fork over.
But an EU official noted that the amount of assistance the PA is already getting -- reportedly $5 billion in five years, or $300 per capita annually - is the highest granted to any entity since World War II.
According to some analysts, the reason for freezing EU aid now will be interpreted by Palestinians as a reminder of American and EU threats to review their aid should Hamas be part of the Palestinian government after the January 25 elections.
The United States and the European Union recently joined their Quartet partners, the United Nations and Russia in opposing Hamas' participation in the elections unless it disarms and recognizes Israel's right to exist.
Minister Hind Khoury, the eloquent and stylish western-educated Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, acknowledges that there's room for improvement, but adds, "corruption is only one small issue. Every country has corruption." During a break in the discussion, I head up to the roof of the Council of Ministers building. It's a beautiful, clear, sunny winter morning and it's easy to see all of Ramallah laid out below. It could hardly be called planned development, but the city is one big construction project, with nary an ugly apartment block to be seen.
Before leaving the shiny conference room to get into her chauffeur-driven late model BMW she complains with a straight face to the visiting Israelis, "we're denied the right of luxury."
Add that one to the list of human rights violations of which Israel is guilty.
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